Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Chinoiserie and 1920s-Style Multiculturalism

The Newbery medal-winner for 1926, Shen of The Sea: Chinese Stories for Children, by Arthur Bowie Chrisman,is another Newbery winner that would never see the light of day had it been written in contemporary times, unless it were as one of those thousands of self-published opuses on Amazon that few ever read. The quality of the book itself isn't really the problem, at least not when judged strictly by literary terms. The sixteen tales in Shen of the Sea are written in competent if not fine prose and are even quite inventive and fun in spots. In true folktale tradition, the clever and good, or sometimes the merely simple and persistent, repeatedly and delightfully defeat the mighty and cruel. The plots are so standard for such tales that I hardly need worry about spoiling them for you: the simple beggar boy proves himself worthy to be the son of a king, powerful demons are tricked into a pickle bottle, and the exquisitely beautiful and virtuous young maiden escapes an unworthy bridegroom. We are also presented with some pourquoi tales for the invention of fireworks, china, printing, tea, chopsticks, the kite, and gunpowder.

Like the 1925 Newbery winner Tales from Silver Lands by Charles Finger, the U.S.-published Shen of the Sea is a collection of stories set in another land and culture from those belonging to its American author. However, unlike Finger, who collected the stories for his book on his travels through South America, Chrisman never even visited China. His stories may not have either. Chrisman studied Chinese literature and history as a hobby (one wonders just how many books and periodicals on the topic would have been available to a non-academic of very modest financial means in the 1920s), and the closest he seems to have gotten to experiencing Chinese culture himself was talking to a Chinese storekeeper he met while travelling in California. The storekeeper may have given Chrisman some of these stories, but it's equally possible that Chrisman made them up himself. These stories, far from being authentically Chinese, are actually a bit of chinoiserie, a cultural appropriation of Chinese culture by someone whose understanding and knowledge of it seems to have been slight and imperfect. Even the illustrations in Shen of the Sea are of a piece with Chrisman's faux Chinese efforts. The book contains 50 silhouettes by Danish artist Else Hasselriis. The silhouette style seems to have been chosen because it was meant to reference Chinese shadow play, but as you'll see from the Wikipedia article on shadow play, the silhouette art form does not look anything like Chinese shadow puppets, though it does look quite a lot like the French version of shadow puppets that arose after French missionaries who worked in China brought the art form back to France in 1767. The illustrations do have considerable charm, but, like the text, are a foreigner's conception of Chinese art rather than actual Chinese art.

In the 1920s, any effort to learn about and show appreciation another culture would have been progressive for the time, and I am sure the 1926 Newbery committee had nothing but good intentions and honestly considered this book to be broadening and educational for children. However, in the Age of Information, we do expect our information to be more reliable and authoritative than that provided by Chrisman (unless, of course, we subscribe to any Rupert Murdoch-owned news publications or channels). The bar for those writing about a culture not their own is much higher now, and rightfully so. We don't need misinformation and misrepresentations that purport to be truth clouding people's minds and self-perpetuating until they create generations of misguided citizens, especially when those who have absorbed misinformation about an issue tend to cling to their beliefs and refuse to entertain the possibility that what they believe to be true is not actually true after all, even when presented with evidence.

Not that I'm comparing Chrisman's book to, say, the anti-vaccination campaign launched by a certain few educationally challenged celebrities. I doubt that Shen of the Sea has done China's relations with the rest of the world any measurable level of harm. The book at least represents Chinese culture as being interesting and worthy of the attention of outsiders. I can't speak to the accuracy of the information about Chinese culture, though I will say I found Chrisman's use of Chinese names that read as jokes in English (i.e., Ah Mee, Ah Fun, Hai Lo) and certain other comic touches to be cringeworthy. There is also definitely a dearth of female characters. They are always supporting characters even when the tale is named for them, they seldom speak or do anything of note, and they all fit into one of a few archetypes: beautiful, desirable maiden or princess; nagging or silently suffering wife, or witch. To be fair, the same could be said of many old folktales.

But as careful as I've been to temper my criticisms of this book with mitigating factors, I doubt I'd ever give or recommend this book to a child. Shen of the Sea may have been the best English-language children's book about Chinese culture available in 1926 but, happily, these days we have better options.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Why the Future of Publishing May Involve Rotten Tomatoes

One of the paradoxes of our time is that while people often claim that publishing is in its death throes, it’s never been easier to get published. We live in an age in which it’s possible for anyone with a computer and an internet connection to make their book (or music, art, or video/film) available for the whole world to see. That is, theoretically. Because as wonderful as it is to think that talented, creative people are guaranteed a way to publish their work for the world to enjoy, that there will be no brilliant novels languishing unknown in a drawer because their authors couldn’t get closer to being published than a publishing house’s slush pile, as those who have self-published any of their work know, it’s damn near impossible to get anything approaching a reasonable audience to look at whatever they’ve produced. What people mean when they claim publishing is dying is that the traditional publishing model is on its way out. And perhaps it is. Perhaps we are moving towards a publishing business model that will be almost exclusively author-driven and involves the author hiring whatever level of editing, production, and marketing services he or she can afford... which means that, as most authors won’t be able to afford to sink any money into a such a risky venture, most publishing will be a modest, do-it-yourself affair with correspondingly modest readership and financial results.

One of the dangers of this outcome is that almost all of our writers and artists will become dilettantes who are expected to produce work for the rest of us to enjoy in whatever time is left after working a day job (not to mention doing the housekeeping, spending time with their romantic partners, raising their kids, exercising, seeing their friends etc.), and all in return for driblets of money that may not pay for much more than the cost of the internet connection required to publish their work. How many books will even the most talented and committed writer produce under such circumstances before deciding it just isn’t worthwhile, or even possible, to keep at it anymore? This rather heart-rending article from author Christopher Pierznik, "What Happens When (Virtually) No One Buys Your Book", paints a vivid picture of the kind of scenario I am thinking of. Pierznik is keeping on because he finds writing too rewarding to give it up, but many gifted writers won’t.

The other serious drawback to self-publishing is that, as so very many people have the same few artistic goals and so very few have the taste, skill, and talent required to produce anything really worthwhile, we’re all getting swamped by a sea of self-published material that is mediocre or worse, with no feasible way to find the high-calibre creative work. Who's going to read all those thousands of wretched self-published books on Amazon to find the occasional scattered gems among them? Self-publishers are always told that they have to market themselves, but the truth is that many very accomplished self-published writers and artists do knock themselves out trying to promote their work and still aren’t developing much of an audience. If anything, increased individual self-marketing efforts on the part of the self-published legion only makes matters worse, because it means more people yelling into the void and more people tuning it out. No one really trusts or even wants to have to see or listen to these amateurish promotional efforts. After all, as the old saying goes, self-praise is no recommends, and a self-published author’s mother’s glowing Amazon customer review of his or her self-published novel is even less reliable, not to mention more piteous.

The truth is that, as our society so often does, we’re asking too much of those who are the most burdened by a common problem, and it’s both unfair and unrealistic for us to do so as the issue is systemic and in most cases can’t be resolved by even the most Herculean individual efforts. What we need to do as a society, whether we’re creators or consumers of art, is to figure out how to make it possible for the cream of our artistic efforts to rise to the top where it can be readily found (and one hopes, purchased) by those who will appreciate it. We need to develop reliable and efficient ways to find the best and most worthwhile of self-published, and for that matter, traditionally published materials.

I don’t claim to have the wholesale solution to this structural problem, but I do think that part of the answer is that we need critics and filters. We need reasonably objective and non-vested people with educated tastes to do the time-consuming work of sifting through the mass of what’s out there and to highlight the best of it for the rest of us. And then, as this task will take an army of critics, we need systems, or filters, to amalgamate all these critical opinions. It’s an enormous and historically unprecedented privilege to have access to the sheer mass of books, movies, art, and music that many of us do, but the excess of it all is overwhelming. In a time of cultural overabundance, those who can devise filters to streamline choice for the audience and make it easier to find the good stuff will be providing a useful and gratefully received service, and if they can also find a way to monetize the service, they’ll do very well for themselves.

You can probably think of filters of your own that you use, not only for entertainment purposes, but for other, more mundane services. is one that comes to my mind. If you’re not familiar with HomeStars, it’s an online directory of contractors with accompanying consumer reviews and an aggregate rating system. I find it an invaluable tool for finding reliable and affordable tradespeople to work on my house. The aggregate experience of ten or more people who have employed a contractor gives me very reliable data on the quality of the contractor’s service, as a single friend’s recommendation might not. Then there’s, which is a community web site where the users link to the best and most interesting materials on the web for all to enjoy and discuss (and the moderators keep the site’s quality high by deleting whatever posts don’t measure up to MeFi standards). Whenever I want to find fascinating online news coverage or in-depth articles or fun websites to read, I can always find some on Metafilter’s front page. When there are an estimated more than one billion websites out there all vying for my attention, this is a real time saver.

In my own small way, I’ve created one specialized filter of sorts by authoring a knitting blog, on which I review the latest patterns from sixteen different knitting magazines and the occasional book of knitting designs. I write articles on knitting-related topics as well, but it is my reviews that are the raison d'ĂȘtre and main draw of the site. Knitters who wish to buy new patterns can either check out all the preview pictures on sixteen different websites several times a year... or they can just read my website. Quite a number of my readers have told me that I’ve saved them a lot of time and money and made it easier for them to find, select, and buy knitting patterns they’re happy with. Alas, nice as it is to hear that my site is as useful to my readers as I hoped to make it, I’ve yet to figure out how to effectually monetize it.

But after thinking over all the means and systems I use to find creative work to enjoy, I submit that the best existing model we have of this kind of critical filter is the one that we have for movies: Rotten Before I began using Rotten Tomatoes to help me select movies to view, I did things like relying on recommendations from friends or individual movie critics, or checking out the IMDB pages of actors I admired to see if they’d done anything I hadn’t seen and cared to see. I found these methods frustratingly ineffective, as though I were using a single fishing hook and a short line to trawl a vast ocean for a good catch. Sure, sometimes I did manage to snag something good, half by chance, but I often couldn’t find anything that appealed to me, or if I did manage to come up with something that seemed that it might be good and watch it, it sucked. Rotten Tomatoes was a revelation. Whether I’m in the mood for a classic horror movie or a contemporary comedy or a documentary, I can pull up lists of the top-rated movies of any genre and/or of any year and pick something to suit in just a few minutes. Or I can vet a movie I’ve heard of and decide whether it’s worth watching. And if I don’t care to watch a popular movie but wish to know enough about it to be able to discuss it intelligently or to understand all the media references to it, it’s easy to find a few good reviews for it via Rotten Tomatoes. Because the ratings are calculated by aggregating the opinions of dozens of professional and semi-professional critics, they are a very reliable indicator of the quality of a movie. While I don’t necessarily love every movie with a “Certified Fresh” Rotten Tomatoes rating, I always find them worth watching. I’ve found and watched so many excellent movies via Rotten Tomatoes that I am certain I would never even have heard of in any other manner.

We need the equivalent of Rotten Tomatoes, or possibly a few of them, for every artistic field of endeavour. There is not an equivalent for books. Yes, there is, but it isn’t what I wish it was. At present its rating system is entirely dependent on user reviews, and user reviews aren’t reliable. They are too easily gamed, for one thing, with authors prodding (or guilting, as the case may be) their spouses, family members, and friends into writing good reviews for them, or even writing reviews of their own work themselves. Then too, even when user reviews are sincere and impartial, the opinions expressed in them often lack any real discernment or value. To be clear, I’m not saying all user reviews are worthless. I’ve read many that were intelligent, insightful, and well-written, but such a high proportion of user reviews are of such poor quality that a rating system that depends on user reviews isn’t reliable as a meter of artistic excellence. Consequently, though Good Reads has value as a place for readers to enjoy cataloguing and commenting on their reading materials, it isn’t as effective a tool for helping its users to find the best books as Rotten Tomatoes is for helping its users to find good movies and TV shows. Amazon also relies on user reviews, as does IMDB. Both sites have a lot of utility in their own ways, but neither site is what I would call a really effective or efficient means to find good books or movies.

I would like to see Goodreads take their user services to the next level by featuring links to professional, or at least semi-professional, book reviews and setting up an aggregate rating system based on them, as Rotten Tomatoes does with movie reviews, and I’d like to see each area of the arts get equally effective filters. It won’t make the world less noisy and it won’t mean every gifted artist will succeed in finding an audience, but perhaps such filters will give both artists and audiences a fighting chance of cutting through the clamour and finding each other.